The crisis of being human refuses to resolve itself. In this seemingly endless existence saga, it would appear that we will be stuck in the “Conflict” stretch of the high school English plot graph for a very long time. It feels sometimes like things must be getting worse, now that ISIS is onstage, and school shootings, and plane bombs. It feels like things are getting worse because those of us who have always felt mostly safe are feeling less safe, but I don’t think total safety has ever been a common human experience. I’m pretty sure that whatever the time period or the geographic location, the vast majority of humans who have appeared on these pages have felt vulnerable to something- the Romans or the plague or the young warriors from the next door tribe. Somehow total security was never a prerequisite for living, and vulnerability most of the time was a generally assumed state of affairs. Which feels like a great relief to me, because if I don’t have to worry so much about trying to feel safe , I’m a little freer to try for other things- kindness, say, or generosity or the patience to sing another lullaby. After the Paris shootings last week, Anne Lamott wrote that the thing to do in response wasn’t to join Vengeance World (or, I would add, Fear World), but to pick up litter, return library books, pass a coat on to someone on the street. I love this. The answer to fear is always love, the truth after tragedy is always to show up, weep, and bring casseroles. The heroes have never been the people living in perfect safety- Gandhi, Day, King, Jesus all lived in absolute vulnerability every day, but they brought love and sanity to the middle of the chaos, and, of course, this changed everything. Which will have to be hope and truth enough for now.
It’s early morning. The rain falls on the lawn, the avocado trees, banana trees, plastic play table. I can’t see any birds but I hear them, singing from under the leaves, reminding each other of their presence. Phil reads King Lear beside me, the French press half full on the carved wooden box by our feet. P comes out to show us her colouring project, to ask the name of the Pope, to give me a butterfly kiss on my arm. An email comes in from the US Embassy, warning us of terror, danger, threats on all sides. I wrap my homemade kanga quilt around my knees, drink lukewarm coffee, listen for birds.
Phil hammers a thick nail into the cement wall outside our kitchen, hangs a heavy second-hand dart board at regulation height. When I bring home shiny gold darts from the store, we all gather in the small courtyard, practice over and over, cheer loudly. The girls hug each other every time one of them hits the board, take turns with their favourite dart colours. Phil invites Godfrey to join, Godfrey who has never held a dart. He is grinning and nervous, embarrassed and proud. The girls clap for him, keep practicing long after the adults have disappeared.
We walk home in the late evening. It is dark and raining and we have no umbrellas. P announces happily that we should have known it might rain, “It is that season”. I watch my family ahead of me on the road, their silhouettes dark against the yellow glow of the streetlight. M is barefoot, dances over the sharp gravel, J holds her head high, her best dress soaked, clinging to her small frame. They pass the street light, disappear into the shadows.
M rushes into the small waiting room outside the dance studio, grabs a book of dance photography and settles onto the dusty floor for a few moments before her class starts. This is what she comes to class for, I think, these photos of ballet dancers on the streets of New York. Her dirty Converse runners lie beside her, she licks chocolate from her fingers.
I stand in the middle of the lawn, early evening, feel the rain fall on my head, my face, stream down my back, cloud my glasses. I can hear the wave of the next downpour roar on the tile roof before it reaches me, can taste it, smell it. All these years of watching the rainy season arrive in our yard, I never thought to include my other senses. I stand longer than I mean to, don’t want the soundtastesightsmellfeeling to end. Phil watches from the porch, dry and wondering. When I stand beside him, a puddle forming around me on the tile, I tell him that if I die tomorrow, I would want to have stood in the rain tonight. He understands this. I wipe the water from my glasses.
Today a white-eyed slaty flycatcher sits on our potato tree, the first time we’ve ever seen that bird in Nairobi. I am not home, but Phil takes pictures, sends me texts. Later we’ll pore over his photos, the flycatcher wide eyed at its surroundings, the bee eater mid-flight, wingfeathers blurred.
As I tuck the girls under faded quilts I ask them questions. What made you angry? What do you love? J is angry when kids say mean things about each other’s art, P loves swimming under water. They beg for more questions, more lullabies, but I am tired, trade the magic opportunity for emails and youtube, already regret the decision as I close the door.
J makes pancakes before school, undaunted by narrow time frames. She is careful not to drip batter on the counter, serves her sisters first. They spread homemade loquat syrup over their pancakes, a gift from a weekend guest.
I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling with children. Reading books side by side is of course a priceless and transcendent kind of bonding. But it can’t replace the story, told face to face, round eyes to round eyes, over a big mug of warm milk or snuggled together under blankets. Storytelling, unmitigated by books and pages and the right amount of light, has a magic all its own.
The first time I really internalized the enchantment of stories was during the Kenyan rainy season when my two oldest daughters were still toddlers. The girls and I, spoiled by 350 days of sunshine and a playground across the lawn didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves when the rains came. We all became bored pretty quickly, which of course degenerated within minutes to grouchy and whiny. Our house was cold and damp and grey and we all slunk around like soggy alley cats in an abandoned warehouse. It wasn’t till the third day that I remembered to light a candle. It’s amazing what one small candle can do to bring some warmth and humanity to a house that’s feeling like a medieval dungeon. I brewed a bit of watery peppermint tea for us, sat us down around that candle and stared at those two shivering creatures across from me. Without really thinking, I announced that I would tell them a story. At which point I panicked, because who can actually come up with a brilliant- or even barely intelligible- story on the spur of the moment? I think it’s this moment of panic that keeps most parents from ever telling stories in the first place, imagining that all the other parents in the world have an internal Rolodex of fairytales and baseball yarns to flip through whenever the occasion might arise.
But they don’t. At least I’ve never met one. I’ve read books by people who insist they tell homemade fairytales to their children every night that they later go on to publish into best selling collections, illustrated by their gifted and imaginative children. But I tend not to believe those kind of parents. And probably wouldn’t like them very much if I met them. Most of my friends, who are smart and funny and caring, are terrified at the thought of having to come up with a story, even if it is just for their sleepy two year old who wouldn’t notice if the story was Mary Had a Little Lamb told in Pig Latin. The only difference between the parents who do tell stories and the ones who don’t is their response to the panic moment. You either give in to the fear and chuckle a little as you pull a book off the shelf and tell your children how their Uncle Charlie is a really good storyteller, so they should ask him for a story next Thanksgiving. Or you close your eyes and say a prayer that your children will never remember or repeat whatever it is you’re about to say, and begin.
I tend to include a time-buying step before this point. I tell my girls that I need to listen to my heart for a moment to see if I can hear a story that it might be whispering to me. I think I stole this from one of my hippy parenting books, but don’t remember exactly what the wording was supposed to be. Regardless, it buys me some time while the girls sit quietly, not wanting to accidentally drown out the story whispers. And, truthfully, in my own panicked way, I really am listening. I sometimes have to wait longer than other times, and sometimes I forget that I’m supposed to be listening and instead just wallow in all that silence, but inevitably M will whisper, “Have you heard anything yet?” and I’ll remember that it’s a story I’m after. Of course the whole story with a fascinating hook, suspenseful plot build-up and multi-dimensional characters never pops into my head like I’m channelling Hans Christian. But at least I can usually remember something we saw that day- a slug maybe, or a bird’s nest- and that’s enough to pull me past the panic and into “Once upon a time….” at which point I may not be home free exactly, but I’m in the river, and can at least hope to stay afloat while it pulls us all along for a while.
Phil and I drink our morning coffee on the upstairs patio while black and white colobus monkeys climb through the branches of the acacia trees in front of us. They stare at us with their old man faces, eat orange berries, swing fluffy bottle brush tails. We consider taking hikes, reading books, washing dishes, but can’t bear to leave, all those swinging, tussling, elegant creatures at our eye level, watching us watching them.
The girls play pirates, shout the crudest words they know and bang on the floors. Not wanting to give up their peppermint tea, they pretend it’s doused with rotten milk, gross enough to be pirate fare, though sipped from porcelain tea cups.
We walk through the woods to get closer to the monkeys. P is bitten by safari ants, wails as we pull them out of her sparkly shoes, her pajama pants.
The girls wake while it’s still dark, whisper as they pour bowls of chocolatey cereal, then pull on hoodies and runners and walk down to the river in the growing light. Later they appear at our bed, breathless and giddy, tell “the scariest story” of being chased back to the house by dogs from the neighbouring farm.
The rain falls in sheets, blurs the greens of the forest at the edge of the yard. I crochet small stitches on a blue hat, think of winter in the northern hemisphere, a distant memory.
J and P take off their clothes, jump into the muddy stream, shriek about crocodiles and sinking mud. I imagine pythons in the murky water, keep my fears quiet, take smiling photos.
We sit in the dark by the fire, drink wine from red coffee mugs, talk about family and terrorism and The Remains of the Day.
Phil and J hike up the escarpment. I hear their laughter float through the trees, wave at them when they appear above the tree line.
Two naked bodies flit across the grass, sparkle in the morning sun, then disappear over the river bank, slide into brown muddy water.
We play games- Taboo, Ziggedy, Connect Four, Deer in the Headlights- do puzzles under a thatched roof, crochet warm hats, paint water colour portraits. Later we hike up the rock face, leap over thick black ropes of safari ants, eat chocolate at the look out.
The girls roll balls of spelt dough between their palms, then flatten them into small bannock cakes that we cook over charcoal. I remember learning about bannock in elementary school, never imagined I’d be eating it with my Kenyan daughters in the Great Rift Valley.
Our home is filled with living creatures. A tiny grey slug slides up the wall above J’s pink flipflops, a longer, patterned one leaves a glistening trail along the back of the Lamu couch. A frog, small and round as a loonie, hops down the hall. Phil and the girls watch its webbed toes grip the tile, try to catch it in small cupped hands. P finds a black beetle, its sides lined with thick yellow stripes, lets it rest in her palm while she eats leftover caramel popcorn. The girls are delighted at each small visitor, welcome them with gentleness, like distant cousins.
P and I step into the art store, admire paintings of the ocean, giraffes. The owner, usually grumpy and aloof, smiles at us, stands to pull large canvases from behind corners. He tells us about Sudanese artists, exhibits in Montreal, the evolution of matter that occurred before the organic evolution, points at beautiful orange images as he talks. P moves silently through the room, traces her finger along gilt frames, whispers about colour while we talk about God.
The rain pounds so loudly against the roof that my heart races as I lie in the night’s darkness. It lasts for hours, like a continuous roll of thunder that my body doesn’t trust.
After school, J is quiet, mopey, answers my questions with shrugs. Later she comes into the kitchen to ask if she can please bake something. I set down the paring knife, pull out frozen strawberries, rhubarb. She reads a recipe my grandmothers served at a hundred faspas in their Canadian farmhouses, directs her little sister to measure out baking soda and pale brown Kenyan sugar. By the time the squares are in the oven, J is dusted with flour and beaming. This mixing, pouring, creating brings her a joy I have never found in the kitchen. I wipe the juice of Limuru strawberries from the countertop, fascinated by this person who once hid behind my ribs.
P is starting to read. I type poems in 40 point font, capital letters. TOM CAN RUN, DAD IS FUN. She reads them loudly, looks at me after each word, amazed at the way she is making stories take shape, a grinning, lisping alchemist.
I sit at a long wooden table and draw the round shape of a matroishka doll, dip my brush into dark red ink, think of my parents walking the streets of St. Petersburg.
M appears at the end of the hallway in the pre-morning shadows, says “Good morning sweetheart” to me before her eyes are fully open. She sits beside me, rests her head on the table, her hair lying in thick ropes twisted from last night’s bath.
P wakes me in the middle of the night, asks why the bathroom light isn’t on. Outside the rain falls heavily, sounds like the roar of the ocean.
We eat paneer fried in ghee, dip carrot sticks in Phil’s first batch of hummus. The girls make faces at the hummus, are still damp from playing basketball in the rain, forced to come in when they could no longer see the rim in the sudden nightfall. Phil makes a comment about playing in the dark, then fishing in the dark, and soon we are all singing along to the block letter lyrics on his phone as we listen to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I see M trying to frown, teetering between enthusiasm and embarrassment. She grows older while I reach for another carrot.
A friend arrives at the door with a tall sunflower in her hand. I plant it in an old wine bottle filled with water, bring it to the porch where we talk about Advent and Desmond Tutu. Later P will stand beside the flower, as tall as she is, and exclaim at the extravagance of the gift.
It had never
occurred to me
that in all the years
of moving in the same
space as birds
I had not once
heard the sound
of a beak
until the day
I heard a click
in the yard
and a few
that the Bee Eater,
with its leafgreen back
and a stripe of yellow
at its throat
as thick and bold as
snaps the bee
in its mouth
with an audible sound
Now I notice
the conspicuous silence
of the Weaverbird
and the Flycatcher
as they find their meals
in the long grass,
and I scan the
avocado tree each
morning for the
hoping for the
I know that there are people who move, satisfied, through their mornings without reading Mary Oliver poems, who appreciate the muddy puddles of spring without the help of e.e. cummings, who know of God without knowing of Rumi. I am baffled by this way of being. I hike through the desert of my days, poetry strapped to my back like a hydration pack. When I start to faint or panic, I turn to take long draughts from the rubber tube, continue the long trek.